New Item on the School Cafeteria Menu: a Calorie Limit?

The Institute of Medicine also says kids need more fruits, veggies, and whole grains.

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The Institute of Medicine has new recommendations for the federal programs that provide breakfast and lunch in primary and secondary schools, and for the first time, it endorses calorie limits. The IOM report says lunches shouldn't be more than 650 calories in grades K through five, 700 for middle schoolers, and 850 for grades 9 through 12. Breakfasts, meantime, should range from 500 to 600 calories depending on the grade.

The report also advises that schools offer more—and more varied—fruits and vegetables, including one cup per day of fruit at breakfast and an additional cup for high schoolers at lunch. Juice should make up no more than half of the fruit provided. More veggies should also be offered, and at least a half cup should be from the "rainbow," meaning leafy greens or orange vegetables rather than starches, such as potatoes. If kids are buying food a la carte, they should be required to take at least one serving of fruits or veggies per meal. The IOM also said schools should move toward whole-grain products rather than the refined variety, and 1 percent or nonfat milk rather than whole or 2 percent.

[Check out Better School Nutrition: Is a Healthful School Lunch Just a Nudge Away?]

Better school meals are a priority for a lot of folks these days, including Jamie Oliver, the British celebrity chef who is currently challenging residents of Huntington, W. Va., to improve their cooking and eating habits both at home and in schools. Childhood obesity is "often referred to as an epidemic in both the medical and community settings," the IOM report notes. And since it's so tough for adults to lose weight and change other lifestyle habits, the hope is that setting better eating patterns among kids and teens may be the best hope of combating obesity and related diseases.

You might think that kindergarten is a fine place to start, but another new report suggests that kids may already have subpar nutrition by that time. According to the Nestlé Feeding Infants and Toddlers Study (FITS), released earlier this week, there's some good news to be found in children's eating habits—fewer infants are consuming sweets or sweetened beverages, though it boggles the mind that infants were eating that stuff in the first place—but there's plenty of bad, too. About 25 percent of older infants, toddlers, and preschoolers don't eat a single serving of fruit on a given day, and 30 percent don't eat one of veggies, the study says. (Moreover, french fries are still the most popular veggie among toddlers and preschoolers.) And a full 75 percent of preschoolers are consuming too much saturated fat, while 71 percent of toddlers and 84 percent of preschoolers are exceeding the recommended daily limit for sodium.

[See Soft Drinks and Energy Drinks: Too Sweet for Your Own Good?]

It can be more expensive to switch to a more healthful diet for kids. The IOM estimated that the cost of breakfast will rise about 20 percent and lunch 4 percent, and those figures could go higher depending on food costs and how many kids opt for the pricier fruits and veggies. That will require federal funds, the report said.

[Related: The Mediterranean Diet: Too Bad It Costs More to Eat Well]

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Check it out: Want to know the dieter's best friend? Try the not-so-humble apple, says That's Fit. Meantime, Fooducate wonders whether industry-sponsored food research can be trusted. And I was on cnn.com/live last week, discussing health insurance discounts for people who meet targets for things like cholesterol or BMI with fellow bloggers MeMe Roth and Igor Volsky.